Alice Waters, if fascinating trivia is to be believed, “..was the chef who cooked the famed shoe that film director Werner Herzog eats in the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe“. Apparently it was cooked for five hours in garlic, herbs and stock, and Werner didn’t eat the sole of the shoe because it would have been like eating the bones of a chicken.
On a less interesting note perhaps, Alice Waters once said this, about strawberries :
“A freshly picked ripe strawberry is brilliantly shiny and plump; its calyx is a bright vibrant green and not wilted at all. Berry colour alone is not always an indicator of good flavour, as colour varies between varieties, but the darkest berries of any one variety will be the ripest… Perfectly ripe strawberries are best eaten raw: plain, sliced up into a glass of red wine, served alongside bowls of creme fraiche and sugar for voluntary dipping, or in a classic presentation such as strawberry shortcake.”
Strawberry Shortcake as a dessert option has never quite appealed to me. I remember the last time I ordered it at a Balmoral Beach-front cafe and was disappointed with what I got : tasteless strawberries, sandwiched between what seemed to be nothing more than a glorified scone. So when a client requested shortcake as one of their three sweet canape options, I was dismayed (also because one of their other requests was for Crannachan, involving raspberries and oatmeal, which I thought sounded terrible, but rather surprisingly.. that’s a story for another time. Although can I also take the opportunity to point out that one should never ever stir in the oatmeal too far ahead of time as the oatmeal tends to soak up all the moisture in the mix and render it fit only as a cement replacement when paving your backyard. I always seem to come unstuck when I try to help out too much by doing ahead, certain things that should be left to the last minute).
But back to the shortcake. Like most things, a lot about the shortcake itself seems to boil down to personal preference. There are countless recipes out there to choose from; some using more butter than others, with the type of liquid used to bring the dough together, ranging from skim milk to plain milk, buttermilk, thin cream, thickened cream and finally, double/thick cream. Choices, choices!
After doing a bit of research on the topic, I came up with 5 recipes to test. One, a modernised recipe by Christine Manfield, was discounted immediately because I wanted to stick to as traditional a taste and look as possible. Another was a recipe I’d used before and never quite liked the results of, so that was ditched too. That left three : 1) Thomas Keller’s from his book French Laundry, 2) Lindsey Shere’s (former pastry chef of Chez Panisse) and 3) a generic, authorless baking book.
It was Keller’s recipe that I eagerly tried first, but unfortunately it was the most disappointing. The shortcake kept it’s shape amazingly well – the best of the three, in fact – making it excellent for presentation, but it had a very tight, closed crumb and wasn’t terribly tasty eaten on it’s own (I can imagine it would have tasted much better with the recommended accompaniments of strawberry sorbet and a creme fraiche sauce ). In a blind taste test, it was the least preferred, with the one getting the biggest thumbs up, being Lindsey Shere’s. The generic shortcake was as expected, a bit middle of the road. Nice, but not as nice as the Lindsey Shere one, which was feather light, with a full butter flavour and fabulous short texture.
So it was to her recipe that I turned when it came to the time when I had to bake off the shortcakes. A few pointers I learned in the process: I incorporated the cream into the flour by hand, which helped me get a feel for how wet or dry the dough was, and whether it needed more cream or not. Once it felt right, I tipped the contents of the bowl onto the benchtop and brought the dough together with a gentle folding/kneading action (not quite kneading as in for breadmaking). To cut the shortcakes out, I opted for a round cutter slightly smaller than I wanted the final product to be (the shortcakes expand upwards, but also slightly sideways, in the oven). The cutter was dipped in flour to prevent the dough sticking to it, and when cutting out the shapes, stamp the cutter firmly down in one motion rather than twisting it through the dough. This ensures a more even rise, which is great for presentation.
After baking and splitting the shortcakes, I covered the bottom halves with some chopped strawberries tossed through with a little fraise des bois puree and a dash of Mymouné orange blossom water to further intensify the strawberry flavour, and then topped this with lightly whipped vanilla cream, finally capping them off with the top halves of the shortcakes, dusted with icing sugar. Lots of cream, and lots of strawberries, is the key to making this a worthwhile dessert or mid-afternoon treat.
This “shoe” winner of a strawberry shortcake is my contribution to this week’s WHB, hosted by Erin of The Skinny Gourmet.
(recipe from Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere; makes 12 individual shortcakes)
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup (113g) unsalted butter, diced
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons thickened cream
Mix the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like cornmeal with a few larger pieces of butter in it. Mix in 3/4 cup of the cream, just until most of the dry mixture has been moistened. Turn out on a board and knead a few times until the dough just comes together. Roll 1/2 inch (1.2cm) thick and cut into squares or circles, or whatever shape you like.
Place on an unbuttered baking sheet. Knead together lightly any scraps and roll once more and cut. Brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons cream and bake in a preheated 218’C oven for 10-12 minutes or until the tops are lightly browned and the dough is set. Cool on a rack and serve while warm.